The Last Well: Indigenous and Feminist Approaches to Environmental and Climate Change Issues (Part II)

The formation and implementation of international law on climate change, biological diversity, environmental protection, atmospheric and oceanic systems, and the cryosphere (ice) has evaded much of the feminist analysis in international law that began in the late 20th century. Treaties, organizations, conferences and international regulation have been dominated by the science of climate change, biodiversity and earth systems, which in turn depend on scientific specializations within geology, biology, atmospheric and oceanic molecular chemistry and physics. Much of the predictive quality of climate change science depends on sophisticated computer modelling and the mathematical analysis that goes with it. This has had the major advantage of giving us real data and sophisticated analysis to work with, and the credibility that the hard sciences have in producing conviction. It also has the disadvantage of being almost completely incomprehensible to policymakers, and the general public. So powerful is the language of “hard” science that corporate and political leaders, who would like to deny that climate change exists, or that environmental issues are a problem, have had to go out of their way to an extraordinary extent in dismissing individuals, institutions, and the entire collective community of climate scientists and specialists in the environment, as liars. The politics and economics of climate change and environmental issues has been dominated by the discourse of the market, technology, and political evasion in favour of corporate interests. This last problem seems to be giving way to a more nuanced approach in which the undeniable destructiveness of repeated climate-induced crises (hurricanes, floods, droughts, fires, rises in sea levels, melting ice, unpredictable weather, and harsher living conditions in much of the world for humans and other species alike) and environmental disasters has induced politicians in most countries to start taking this seriously. The public is at last demanding some action on these issues, as are insurance companies, and even military and security officials around the world, who rightly see environmental collapse as an enormous financial and security risk. The disappearance of biodiversity and ecological habitats in many locations is also now starting to get some attention, particularly as the Covid crisis has made it very clear that habitat destruction is dangerous to human health.

Both national and international law, as well as climate science, tend to be dominated by male-centred issues with male policymakers and male experts dominating most discussions and decisions. Reliance on legal norm creation and “hard” science have also meant that issues surrounding human rights, cultural and Indigenous rights, social issues and even psychological effects have tended to be ignored as peripheral, “soft”, less urgent, at least until recently. Women’s participation in the science of climate change and the environment, and in policy formation, as well as leadership within Indigenous, environmental and other communities, has helped to mitigate this marginalization of the human side of what environmental justice as a whole might mean. As Inuit like to remind us – “it’s not just about polar bears”.  Siila Watt-Cloutier, a leading Inuit authority and activist on climate change, chemical pollutants, and environmental degradation makes it clear that climate change is a human rights issue. Her latest book is called The Right to be Cold. Municipal governments are also moving into the vacuum of political power created by inactive national and regional politics. Local governments are now often dominated by women who see climate change and the environment as not just technological or economic problems that need solving, but as human problems that need a commitment to both mitigation and adaptation within a more just social order.

The fields of science and law also tend to focus on how to “fix” climate change and the environment. So, we talk a lot about sustainable development; clean and renewable energy such as solar, wind or bio-fuel; carbon capture and sequestration; atmospheric technologies designed to shield the planet from the warming effect of the sun, or to induce rain in drought-afflicted areas; the manufacture of electric cars;  and so on. Law focuses on regulation and enforcement at the local, national and international level – setting targets for emissions, cap and trade systems, carbon taxation, rewards for “green” initiatives, and punishment for offenders. These approaches tend to be top-down, relying on existing political systems and corporate capitalist structures. More radical proposals demand at least a partial restructuring of the existing economic and political order, although how either science or law could achieve this is not explained. At the most extreme ends of the spectrum there is both a call for the destruction of capitalism and neo-liberalism altogether; or, the apotheosis of capitalist salvation through technology, geo-engineering, the colonization of other planets, or through the creation of artificial life to replace humans (“transhumanism”) and other living species.

As discussed briefly in Part I, we really need to start looking at other ways of thinking. This Part focuses on feminist approaches. Part III will look more at Indigenous perspectives.

Ecofeminism and the concept of an “ethic of care” is one way of rethinking our relationship with nature. As Carin Lesley Cross has noted:

The current relationship we have with nature is hierarchal and fragmented because it is rooted in a culture of separation created by a ‘masculine’ modernity. The patriarchal values of rationality and power have ‘othered’ the natural environment and women.  In order to prevent irreparable ecological destruction, we need to change the relationship between humanity and nature to one that is ecologically responsive. . . . ecofeminist literature enables us to challenge the hierarchical structure created by dualisms thereby uprooting the current patriarchal oppressive system. It reveals how an ethic of care approach can transcend the modern patriarchal structures that have promoted dominion over nature and contextually and narratively recreate the human and nature relationship. The value of this research lies in the fact that central to an ethic of care is the respect and care for all earthly beings, an ethic which listens to, and is responsive to the diversity of all ‘environmental voices.

Eco-feminism has also borrowed extensively from Marxist feminisms, but in a very much altered form. As Ariel Salleh has written, drawing on the work of Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva:

The ecofeminist lens . . . can be characterised as an ‘embodied materialism’. It is ‘materialist’ in endorsing the basic tools of a Marxist sociology, and ‘embodied’ in that it sets out to re-frame that discourse by giving equal weight to the organically interrelated entities – man, woman, nature. Historically, these have been unequally valorised. In particular, the interests of male-dominated societies have been served by managing women’s bodies as a ‘natural resource’. That meant positioning the female sex ‘somewhere between’ men and nature in the order of things. This masculinist practice points to a fundamental structural contradiction in capitalism. A node of crisis not yet included in the conversations of political economy . . .

. . . or in the modern discourses of environmental justice and international law.

There is a lot of value to this approach. It exposes the masculinist nature of concepts such as “rationality”, “nature”, “modernity” and looks at the mind/body dualism created by a Cartesian approach to what it means to be human. It gives some sociological context to the marginalization and “othering” of nature, women and the “Peoples of the Earth”.

Inuit lawyers and policymakers, many of them women, understand very well what an “ethic of care” might be, as it is central to Inuit relationships with the Arctic, but would emphasize the need for real permanent protection of the rights of Inuit and other Indigenous peoples to protect their own land and culture, not just as a matter of ethics, caring or respect, but of justice and of law. An Inuk woman once told me “we don’t want respect, we want social justice”. Eco-feminism sometimes seems to be dominated by European and Euro-American women who are not always very good at seeing beyond their own protected position within existing legal systems, or understanding how feminism, even eco-feminism, may look very different to a non-European woman or anyone from an Indigenous community.

In 2010 Dr. Sherilyn MacGregor of the University of Manchester commented on the lack of research into the masculinist nature of climate change, and began work on filling in the gaps:

In the light of frightening predictions, it might reasonably be asked, what is the point of suggesting that greater attention should be paid to gender? Feminist scholarship on environmental problems must always be ready for such questions, to defend the relevance of gender analysis in the face of dominant tendencies to see humanity as homogeneous, science as apolitical, and social justice as a luxury that cannot be chosen over survival. In this essay, I make the case for feminist social research on climate change with the following argument: shedding light on the gender dimensions of climate change will enable a more accurate diagnosis and a more promising ‘cure’ than is possible with a gender neutral approach. My argument is that any attempt to tackle climate change that excludes a gender analysis will be insufficient, unjust and therefore unsustainable.

Supporting this argument with evidence is challenging because there is a worrying lack of research on which to draw. Social research on climate change has been slow to develop; feminist research into the gender dimensions has been even slower.

In 2016 a special issue of Kungl Vetenskaps Akademien – Gender Perspectives in Resilience, Vulnerability and Adaptation to Global Environmental Change included “a synthesis of convergent reflections, tensions and silences in linking gender and global environmental change research”.

The main theoretical contributions of this special issue are threefold: emphasizing the relevance of power relations in feminist political ecology, bringing the livelihood and intersectionality approaches into Global Environmental Change [GEC], and linking resilience theories and critical feminist research. Empirical insights on key debates in GEC studies are also highlighted from the nine cases analysed, from Europe, the Americas, Asia, Africa and the Pacific.

Intersectional analysis is seen as fundamentally important to any examination of global environmental research, of which climate change forms a part. Unlike eco-feminist perspectives, intersectionality tries to avoid the assumption that gender is a homogeneous concept. Issues of race, sexuality, class, age, ethnicity, caste and other identities have a major influence on the experiences of both women and men in relation to environmental change. (The term “intersectionality” in this research does not refer to identity politics, but to overlapping issues of race, class and other differences affecting women from different backgrounds and social conditions, as the term was originally defined by Kimberle Crenshawe and other legal theorists in the later 1980’s and 1990’s). This approach does not look specifically at climate change, however. It is possible to argue that climate change itself is so large, so global in scope and intensity, and the issues raised are so urgent, that it is unlike other forms of environmental change which tend to focus on specific locations and activities, such as farming or fishing within defined communities. Climate change is of course also important at the local level, and many forms of environmental degradation and alteration are at least influenced by changes in climate. In addition, biodiversity and habitat loss are now becoming so widespread and devastating that the effects are now global. Focusing on local intersectionalities can obscure major commonalities between, for example, climate change and environmental destruction induced migration from the Sahel to southern Europe, from Central America to North America, and from the Pacific region to Australia and New Zealand. The majority of these migrants are women and children.

Sara L. Seck in “Relational Law and the Reimagining of Tools for Environmental and Climate Justice” addresses both climate change and legal approaches from a different perspective.

It is well documented that environmental and climate justice problems are associated with local and global extractive industry operations and that concrete legal and policy reforms will be necessary if we might hope both to prevent and remedy harms.

I explore how a relational approach to legal analysis might contributes to the process of reimagining legal tools for environmental and climate justice. Thinking of environmental justice focuses our attention on sites of local harm, which are intertwined with histories of colonialism and racism. Climate justice, on the other hand, draws our attention to the international and the ‘global’, which, while equally intertwined with colonial and racist histories, present different challenges of the imagination.

Both environmental justice and climate justice are also intertwined with gender justice, whether the focus is upon those who are most vulnerable to harms or those whose voices are crucial as agents of change.  Attention to extractive industries (mining, oil, and gas) and gender justice leads us to the tools of international human rights law, including the recognition of the human rights of women and girls, the responsibilities of businesses to respect human rights, and the duty of states to protect human rights from irresponsible business conduct.

. . . “relational law” and “relational theory” . . . encompass diverse approaches to legal analysis that, in my view, share a desire to shine the spotlight away from the bounded autonomous individual of liberal thought and towards relationships among people and the material world, including relationships in the international sphere.

This approach allows Seck to look more closely at international Indigenous rights and Indigenous feminist perspectives in framing the issue of “climate justice” on a global scale. Moving the spotlight away from the individual allows for a better understanding of how relationships between or within communities and their position within and beyond nation-states effect human resilience and adaptability in relation to massive changes in climate systems. The inclusion of gender justice into this discussion moves us away from a liberal focus on the autonomous individual and towards an analysis of positions of vulnerability, empowerment and responses to regional relations, nation-states, the international community and, above all, global material systems – land, water, ice, oceans, weather (both “normal” and catastrophic) and the human-built environment.

Indigenous feminist perspectives are, in my view, central to any discussion of climate and environmental justice. Seck provides a short but valuable discussion of the differences between Indigenous perspectives on gender, and that of mainstream or intersectional feminisms. Joyce Green, the editor of Making Space for Indigenous Feminism, . . . notes that “Indigenous feminism has been routinely denigrated [by Indigenous women] as untraditional, inauthentic, non-liberatory for Indigenous women and illegitimate as an ideological position, political analysis, and organizational process.” For Indigenous feminists, gender cannot be divorced from communal, ancestral and spiritual perspectives.

For example, protection of water is seen within many Indigenous communities as closely tied to women’s roles as mothers. Water is seen as alive and closely connected with biological aspects of motherhood and women’s bodies. There are spiritual connections between water and family, water and blood, water and childbirth, and water as life. Maori activists in New Zealand, Lakota Water Protectors in North Dakota, and Indigenous women in the Amazon River basin argue that rivers are alive, that they are “relatives”, and that they have rights. Women and water systems have reciprocal responsibilities of life-giving and protection. Oil and gas extraction is seen as destructive of these living systems and dangerous to the integrity of all life on “Mother Earth”. Indigenous peoples, especially women, see their responsibilities as guardians of the Earth not only as local, but also as global. Inuit discussions of climate change emphasize that their concerns are not just about melting ice in the Arctic, but what effect this has on global climate systems.

Citing Karen Knop’s work (among others) Seck then goes on to tackle these theoretical perspectives within the framework of feminist approaches to international law. Here we find valuable insights on questioning the centrality of the State and notions of sovereignty, which are clearly crucial to climate justice; focusing on the work of non-state actors in the creation of international law (of which the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is a prime example); emphasizing a relational approach to questions of international law; and lessening the sharp distinction between the public and private sphere, also crucial to questions of climate and environmental justice.  This includes not only piercing the veil of State sovereignty to highlight the role states play in the affects of climate change on their own citizens and climate refugees (as in a human rights framework), but also on the role of non-state actors and international organizations on setting both environmental policy and law. It also means turning our gaze onto private non-state actors, especially extractive industries, multi-national corporations, and lending institutions such as banks and hedge funds, which are instrumental in creating environmental injustice. We are already seeing law suits at the national level in the US, Canada and Europe directed mainly by children against both national governments and private actors for their role in creating the climate crisis. This ideal of international accountability for environmental injustice by private entitles that cross international boundaries needs to become reality.

There is a deeper issue that deserves a much more extensive feminist analysis than I can give here. Modern industrial societies are not just the result of capitalist accumulation, extraction of resources, and the division of capital and labour into conflicting classes.  The success of these societies is also not just a question of Euro-American colonization of the rest of the world to feed metropolitan power-centres. It is also about the transformation of traditional, feudal and mercantilist economic systems into modern capitalist political democracies. The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century was built on hundreds of years of what Karl Marx named “primitive accumulation” of capital assets like land (a simpler word is theft), class warfare, colonial policies both within and outside of Europe and America, and the transformation of Europe into competing nation-states – the foundation of modern political regimes and international law.  The 200 year old industrial experiment of changing the molecular chemical structure of the atmosphere and oceans, as a result of the burning of fossil fuels, threatens to bring down these same modern industrial societies, democratic institutions, and even international legal frameworks alike. The colonized, the marginalized, the already damaged communities of Indigenous peoples, the poor, women, children, the elderly, the disabled, and peoples with brown or black skins – the “Peoples of the Earth” – are now and will continue to be on the frontlines of this massive change.

Modern industrial societies are also the result of centuries of the accumulation of patriarchal power at every level, from the privacy of the home to the Law of Nations. Our organizational structures, our institutions, our militaries, our education systems, our health systems, our laws, our religious bodies, our private enterprises both national and international, are deeply infused with patriarchal values of how power works, how authority structures are organized, and how individuals and groups interact.

“Patriarchy” literally means the “rule of the father”. Capitalism, as the modern form of patriarchy, is permeated with competitive scrambles to accumulate enormous levels of wealth, status, and influence for men. Within this patriarchal capitalist framework the default of what it is to be human is gendered as masculine within a very specific model of what it is to be a man. This, coupled with white supremacy, is a deeply unbalanced model of humanity at every level. Patriarchy is not however simply male supremacy or male dominance. It is an entire way of thinking so deeply engrained that one-half of humanity can be literally ignored or erased as irrelevant to almost any discussion, particularly in the public sphere. Women may be under continual surveillance by the “male gaze”, but not as fully human sovereign beings with our own histories and our own agency but, as Ariel Salleh says, as a “natural resource” like minerals or forests or fish. Only women’s usefulness as a resource is not just in our productive work, but in our sexual and reproductive labour, as many feminist theorists such as Carol Pateman have pointed out.

These gendered values have divorced almost every institution with any significance in our modern societies from both women’s lives and the natural world, as “nature” is equated with the feminine as another resource. This has successfully relegated almost everyone outside a small, privileged circle of mostly white men into a limbo of “otherness”. We regularly assume – even those of us attempting a feminist analysis of what is generating our human and environmental predicament – that women and girls are one of a range of categories or groups or classes or orientations that are the basis of discrimination, such as race, sexuality, disability, religion, nationality, or poverty. This is very misleading. Women and girls – female human beings – are one half of humanity. As the Chinese saying goes “women hold up half the sky.” We are not just another category of discrimination or identity. Our position as women intersects with all other orientations and identities, but they can never fully define us. Just as these intersections can never fully define who men are.

The result of this patriarchal blindness, structured into every aspect of human society, is that our planet is facing an extinction event of massive proportions, possibly endangering not only human civilization, but also life itself. The foundation of how these systems retain their power is violence – specifically male violence against women and girls from all backgrounds; male violence against other men and boys who, by reason of colour, race, class, nationality, “tribe”, sexuality, or gender identity are not “male” enough; male violence against children; against animals; male violence against the Earth itself. Women who are black, brown, poor or “other” suffer much greater rates of violence than do those who are more privileged. It is important to remember however that whiteness, comparative wealth, youth and beauty, or strict adherence to the norms of heterosexual “femininity” are never more than a contingent protection against male violence. The relative “privilege” of white, middle-class, heterosexual women is largely parasitic on the white, comparatively well-off, heterosexual men who provide some protection for “their” women – or who choose not to. The recent murder of Sarah Everard in the UK, and the mass killing of Asian women in Atlanta, Georgia both tell us a great deal about male violence, misogyny and race, and about how such violence can be disguised or dismissed as something other than male hatred of women. Even mass killings that appear to be random are almost always committed by a man with a background of misogyny.

There is a reason why Indigenous women in particular, who have taken up leadership roles in the struggle for environmental justice, are targeted for violence. There is a reason why sexual assault is used as a weapon of control both in the domestic sphere, in resource extraction, on the streets of our cities, and in war. There is a reason why women’s reproductive sovereignty, access to abortion and control of our own bodies, and even the very definition of what a woman is, are matters of central importance to the maintenance of patriarchal systems. There is a reason why extractive industries can go on raping and pillaging the very Earth itself.

Fossil fuels are not, however, the last frontier of industrial capitalism, and the wealthy who feed off this system are very well aware of this. The “Green Economy” will continue to fuel capitalist enterprises and will still rely upon extractive industries, such as the mining of “rare earth” metals necessary for the building and maintenance of solar and wind energy systems, and deforestation for bio-fuel, and even coal, oil and natural gas. But technology, and even the creation of artificial life and intelligence, are also very much a part of the new capitalism being born right now in front of our eyes. These developments of “techno-capitalism” are the very antithesis of natural systems, and are fundamentally male-centred.

Feminist approaches to climate change and environmental justice are not just about victimization, or participation and leadership, but also about alliances across political, racial, class, religious and cultural divides. Feminist approaches based on relational theories or an ethic of care could be really helpful, as might some aspects of a new Marxist perspective. But the fundamental problem is patriarchy. The tools are there, the theoretical perspectives are there and, increasingly, the will towards change is also finally there.

Sources for all three parts of “The Last Well” will be included at the end of Part III.

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